Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fun with GIS 118: Seeds of STEM

Visiting schools is a rush! Last week, I watched students in three schools in two states use geospatial technology. Without exception, the students were anxious to explore, diving headlong into the maps, comparing here to there. A few showed projects they had created in the last month. The catch? All these students were from grades 3-6 (age 8-12). I worked with the TravelWise program at two schools in Utah, and Waterville (WA) school’s “Literate About Biodiversity” program built in conjunction with NatureMapping.

Fourth grade students (despite blinders installed for computer-based testing) collaborate on a measurement task.

I’m often asked “When can kids use GIS?” I’ve watched many young learners work with GIS tools and demonstrate more interest and intellectual capacity than shown by older learners. Working with ArcGIS Online and starting with a view of their immediate neighborhood, students in third grade have been able to point to parts of an image and translate them into elements and directions out the window. I’ve walked with third and even second graders as they held a GPS unit, told me how the devices record numbers, that these mean a specific place on earth that can be put on a map, and that they can then connect on the map things they see out in the field. I’ve watched as kids defined paths and measured distances, zoomed in and out for detail or context, and compared their paths with those of neighbors.

Third grade student drives the mouse from the teacher's desk (by lamp) while another directs the activity.

I’ve also watched learners in high school and beyond (including even teachers!) who were hard pressed to do the same. My view: “With an appropriate introduction to concepts and skills, learners of almost any age can use GIS in tasks that require spatial thinking and technological skill.” There may be a base of life experience and cognitive capacity required, and I’ve not spent as much time with second grade and younger, but third graders are definitely capable of doing serious tasks with GIS and GPS, grasping what they are doing, and articulating it.

Third grade student finds the established spot (pencil driven into ground) and verifies with GPS in advance of taking serial documentary photo.

So why are some older students and even teachers unable to do the same? Sadly, I suspect many have had their curiosity and creativity regulated into submission. Many of these older learners have been willing to follow prescribed steps to reach a supposed “correct response,” but, absent steps, were unable to generate a relevant question themselves or connect the exercise with any real meaning.

        Third grade student shares her project documenting the life cycle and migration of salmon.        

Of the many learning examples I get to watch, the most powerful emphasize personal interest. The best educators I watch are able to introduce topics and help students of all backgrounds see quickly how these relate to their lives. Then, students pursue short customized studies that build an expanding lattice of principles, facts, concepts, and skills with personal relevance. Students are encouraged to mix and match, stretch and discover, and even risk failure, as long as they keep looking.

Life doesn’t come with a handbook. Few jobs come with an absolute instruction set, finite facts to memorize, and no decisions to make. Few events in life require no grasp of relationships or capacity to note differences between things here and things over there. Kids need to build these frameworks, and can do so starting from a young age, with geotech. Young kids love critters, they understand the basics of their neighborhood, and they are naturally curious. As one of my mentors described it, “Educators need to reach in and grab students through their doors.” Young kids have substantial capacity for doing and learning; we plant the seeds of STEM early. If we can foster those, we will help the youth, our schools, our communities, and the planet alike, in the best way possible. But educators and — more important — the people who monitor and regulate them can also vaporize curiosity, creativity, and craftsmanship with frightening speed, if we let it happen.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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ArcGIS Explorer and the Xbox 360 Kinect

The Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect is one of most powerful consumer-oriented “Natural User Interface” devices available today. Its near-infrared camera produces 3D motion data of anything in front of the it and coupled with a standard webcam and quadraphonic microphone, the device is jammed pack with input sensors. The Microsoft Education team promotes Kinect and has prepared over a 100 lessons and activities to promote “active” learning. Microsoft also claims the Kinect may be useful as an assistive technology device and in promoting collaboration.

What you might not know is that the Kinect can plug to your computer and be used as an interface device!

Think about young students actively controlling a 3D ArcGIS Explorer Desktop globe – investigating the Earth while moving arms, legs, and torso to direct navigation, display data, or conduct an analysis. What an interesting way to engage young, energetic learners.

Last week, I demonstrated this concept at the meeting of the Esri Education Team. I connected my Kinect to my Windows laptop and we took turns controlling ArcGIS Explorer Desktop! To get the environment setup, I used the USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies recommendations. This set-up requires installing a set of drivers and then running the FAAST toolkit. Basically, FAAST allows you to create a mapping between Kinect-detected body movements to keyboard strokes. So, when I raise my right arm, the World spins right!

How to make the Kinect work for you:

  1. Acquire a stand-alone Xbox 360 Kinect or if you have a Kinect, just get an external USB power supply.
  2. Locate a computer with Windows 7, ArcGIS Explorer Desktop, and a free USB port.
  3. Visit the USC Institute for Creative Technologies to install drivers and configure the Kinect.
  4. Create your own mapping file or you can start with my simple mapping file.

Remember, these steps might require a little extra “tech-savvyness” and the FAAST toolkit from USC is an open source (neither a Microsoft nor Esri) project. Use at your own risk.

Post your comments and links using the Kinect to control ArcGIS Explorer Desktop below! Everyone should be able to create a fluid interaction with ArcGIS Explorer Desktop using the Kinect. Good luck!

- Tom Baker,Esri Education Manager

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Esri Education GIS Conference 2012

July 21–24, 2012 ~ Marriott Marquis and Marina ~ San Diego, CA

GIS education prepares students for valued careers, enhances learning across a variety of disciplines, and enables administrators to realize efficiencies in campus operations. Through technical sessions, hands-on workshops, and user presentations, the Esri Education GIS Conference provides unique learning opportunities to help you and your educational institution maximize its investment in GIS.

Join us as we envision the future of GIS technology and pedagogy in a uniquely participatory plenary discussion and be a founding member of the next generation Esri Education Community.

Learn more!

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Reflections on the Geographical Association Annual Conference

Last week I, along with Esri UK, participated in the annual conference of the Geographical Association, an international organization supporting the teaching and learning of geography, headquartered in the UK. I was struck once again by the common bonds that educators around the world share. Whether going through struggles or successes, what excites them all is inquiry, having students ask deep questions, fieldwork, and new techniques, tools, and ideas. It is amazing to witness the enthusiasm they have for teaching, even though they may have taught topics such as coastal erosion, plate tectonics, or migration for many years. Perhaps part of the reason why is because educators are future-oriented: They love to introduce a new cohort of students to the wonders of the world around them. I can relate to this, as I have taught introduction to GIS for years for teachers and students and never tire of it.

Another set of common experiences are the positive reactions as ArcGIS Online has been becoming a viable platform for teaching and learning over the past year. First, educators are amazed at the wealth of content available from the platform, from historical and current maps and satellite imagery to stream gaging stations, weather and climate, natural hazards, geology and soils, energy, rivers and watersheds, and much more, from a local to global level. Second, the tools contained in the platform—from measurement to classification to transparency to adding multimedia, are both easy to use yet powerful. Third, the ability to add one’s own data from online tables to local spreadsheets to photographs and movies is one of the best features of all. Fourth, the ability to save and share data overcomes one of the traditional challenges with working with GIS. Fifth, since there is no software to install, it can be used anywhere—on tablets, laptops, and even on smartphones. Everyone who stopped by our exhibit and attended the hands-on workshops that Jason Sawle from Esri UK and I taught came away with the attitude of, “I can start using that tomorrow in the classroom!” Indeed.

Pattern of the most and least poverty stricken neighborhoods in England as mapped and analyzed in ArcGIS Online.

What excites you most about teaching? What advantages do you see in ArcGIS Online that you can take advantage of to enhance teaching and learning?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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No-cost NCGE Geotagging for Educators Webinar

Geotagging, using pictures and other digital files to support student inquiry, fieldwork, and data analysis, can be a simple and fun ways to engage students in GIS and GPS. Student data, photos, and recorded audio can build on interactive basemaps and allow students to tell their own “geostories” about a place or phenomenon.

Ideal for earth and environmental science and geography teachers, this webinar will only use tools that are free and web-based, allowing educators to use tomorrow.

Join geotagging author and presenter, Dr. Tom Baker of the Esri Education Team as he shows “10 Tips for Easy GeoTagging in Any Classroom” on Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 8pm Eastern / 7pm Central .

Sign-up for this NCGE webinar!

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Fun With GIS 117: The Future of the Past

As a kid, history baffled me. I floundered in the whirlpool of names, dates, and variably detailed accounts. I saw no pattern, no threads of organization. It was not until college, when I studied “regions” in geography, that the maelstrom of history began to stratify into patterns.

Today’s students have even more chance for confusion. The past grows ever more detailed, more open to cataloguing and endless shuffling. Fortunately, history lends itself to a geographic view, and ArcGIS Online makes it easy for educators and students alike to build their own view of yesteryear, demonstrating that the past can be re-organized infinitely.

Had I a time turner and the chance to re-do my history classes from grades 5, 7, and 11, I would want to bring ArcGIS Online. Not all of history has been converted into databases organized for geographic analysis, though some collections exist. Therefore, students can build their own, constructing and presenting their views, engaging deeply in the past. Even building simple catalogues of events or people tied to places, exposed over time, can help students fathom the past.

We are well into the sesquicentennial of the US Civil War, echoes of which linger even today. Students can view a small collection of data about battles, as one example of organization. An experienced user might take the liberty of revising the popup, or the classification and symbolization. What additional approaches or data might also make sense, exposing alternative views into the past?

John McHale once wrote a powerful little “poem” about time:

      The future of the past is in the future.


      The future of the present is in the past.


    The future of the future is in the present.

He meant that we constantly redefine what we think of the past, and our actions back then influenced the prospects we have today, and the outlook for tomorrow is based on what we do today.

Helping students of today become thoughtful leaders of tomorrow requires that they fathom the conditions, ideas, and decisions of the past. This takes more than memorization. It calls for exploring, grappling, analyzing, and integrating. ArcGIS Online is a powerful tool for encouraging such wrestling with time and space.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Schools Program Manager

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Titanic's Geography & Classes

We observe the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic by map-enabling its passenger list.

This latest story map from Esri adds a different dimension to the Titanic, a more personal geographic picture. Explore the levels of loss as you step from 1st class to 3rd class.

Discover the Titanic story map here.

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Ten Ways to Teach and Learn About Water Using ArcGIS Online

Just in time for Earth Day, but suitable for use throughout the year in geography, earth science, environmental science, chemistry, social studies, and in other disciplines is a new lesson that invites students to learn about water using ArcGIS Online.

Water is a spatial subject: It easily moves among its solid, liquid, or gas phases on our planet. It flows through oceans, rivers, wetlands, glaciers, and through the hydrologic cycle at different rates. It is affected by long-term climate, everyday weather, hurricanes, landforms, and air pressure. It has been channeled into settling ponds, water treatment plants, fields, irrigation ditches, drainage ditches, canals, reservoirs, and many other means by humans. It acts as a change agent above, on, and below the surface of the Earth, affecting crop yields, aquifers, erosion, floods, stream sediment, soil chemistry, weathering, and much more. Thus, the geographic perspective and GIS are useful to understanding water from local to global scales.

These activity use ArcGIS Online, a Web-based Geographic Information System (GIS). Students at the upper secondary/university level can use the lesson, but so can those at the lower secondary level, and the lesson can be modified for primary level. It can be used in formal or informal educational settings and in a whole-class format or in a lab. No previous experience with GIS is necessary but (1) the geographic perspective is important, and (2) a background discussion in the topic investigated will be helpful. For example: “What are watersheds and why are they important?”

Through the activities, students investigate major dams and reservoirs, cities along rivers, flood zones, food production, wetlands, and water quality. These include the following questions and assignments: What is the relationship between wind speed and direction to precipitation, current air pressure, temperature, and topography? Using USGS stream gages and weather stations, predict the height of the water in streams where significant precipitation has been occurring. What is the relationship between the location of the gaging station within the watershed and the height of the river? Go outside! Do current weather local conditions match the map you have been examining? Predict tomorrow’s conditions based on the maps you are examining.

How could you use ArcGIS Online to teach about water in your instruction?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Computational Thinking with GIS

The educational value of Computational Thinking (CT) was first noted in 2006 and is now largely considered an emerging concept of magnitude from educational organizations like CSTA, ISTE, and AACE SITE. Other organizations with a focus broader than education, like the Center for Computational Thinking have signaled the importance of CT for STEM or the University of Colorado’s scalable game design effort.

“CT is an approach to solving a problem that empowers the integration of digital technologies with human ideas. It does not replace an emphasis on creativity, reasoning and critical thinking, but it re-emphasizes those skills while highlighting ways to organize a problem so that a computer can help” (p 8).

CT principles and methods span all academic areas in ways designed to amplify critical thinking and problem solving with technology. Students who use CT are creators, designers, and developers of solutions and systems that improve their lives and world around them by integrating technology into their thinking and action – with dramatically improved results.

CT isn’t just “Augmented Reality”, it’s more akin to “Augmented Problem Solving”.

The ISTE Leadership Toolkit offers more definition. CT is a problem-solving process that includes but is not limited to) the following characteristics:

  • Formulating problems in a way that enables us to use a computer and other tools to help
  • Logically organizing and analyzing data
  • Representing data through abstractions, such as models and simulations
  • Automating solutions through algorithmic thinking (a series of ordered steps)
  • Identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions with the goal of achieving the
  • and effective combination of steps and resources
  • Generalizing and transferring this problem-solving process to a wide variety of problems

GIS and geospatial technologies in classrooms completely embody the definition of Computational Thinking: gathering and analyzing data using a variety of models or tools in order to create solution representations to real world problems. The processes of solving problems with GIS or PBL-GIS are powerful approaches to education and creating technology-enabled lifelong problem solvers. GIS can be a critical tool in the efforts and approaches to teaching with technology – Computational Thinking.

Learn more about the CT Leadership Toolkit [PDF] or the Teacher Resource Guide [PDF] and include geotechnologies in your instruction, within the CT framework, models, vocabulary, and implementation.

- Tom Baker, Esri Education Manager

ISTE‘s Computational Thinking video on YouTube:

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Fun With GIS 116: Carbon Density

“Can web GIS be used in science?” asked several visitors to our exhibit at the recent conference of the National Science Teachers Association. The resounding answer is “YES!” Besides the typical examples of volcanoes and earthquakes, rivers and watersheds, tornadoes and hurricanes, and oceans and atmosphere, a new opportunity has arrived, thanks to the researchers at Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC).

Carbon density is an issue of huge concern for global climate change and land use decision making: What’s the amount of live woody biomass over a given parcel of land? WHRC researchers have created a dataset for the land between the Tropics, at 500m resolution, and posted it in ArcGIS Online. You can see it in an embedded map, and read about the impact of carbon, and how the data were assembled.

With a hypothesis in mind, I used ArcGIS Online to create a three-panel map, looking at biomass, terrain, and human population density, then synchronized scale and location.

On my computer, I explored key sites within Indonesia (above). On my iPad, I browsed over to Brazil and looked at the province of Rondonia (below). Many sites deserve scrutiny over time.

Carbon storage, environmental health, and land conservation are vital in discussions about climate, population, and food. Seeing the patterns and examining the relationships are important tasks for science teachers. Students must become map-savvy to take advantage of the growing rivers of data. These biomass data came from a mix of MODIS and LiDAR data. Understanding the nature of these data gathering techniques helps students grasp what the data mean. This a fabulous blend of physics, chemistry, biology, earth, and environmental sciences. So, without question, web GIS is good for science! Certainly the scientists at WHRC think so!

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Schools Program Manager

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